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Friday, February 19, 2010

Getting Real About Prison Education Cuts

Posted By on Fri, Feb 19, 2010 at 6:30 AM

click to enlarge School's out -- forever?
  • School's out -- forever?
California has the highest inmate recidivism rate in the country: 70 percent. Now, as a result of a $250 million budget cut in prison education programs, the state is gearing up to liquidate programs, slash in-class hours, fire more than 800 of the state's 1,200 prison teachers, and, in their place, train long-term offenders as one-on-one peer tutors.

A few of the cuts are not worth crying over: San Quentin is

losing its vocational print shop, which had been training the inmates in

skills that had become obsolete in the age of the LaserJet.

But the overall impact on the inmate population will be, in the polite phrasing of the California Department of Corrections and Rehabilitation, "significant."

"You tell me, when you went to college or school, how valuable was it to have a teacher in front of you?" San Quentin public information officer Lieutenant Sam Robinson told SF Weekly last month.

There's been plenty of outrage about the pending layoffs, which have been in the works since September.

In the Chronicle Tuesday and Wednesday, Democratic candidates for state attorney general

Kamala Harris and Ted Lieu each denounced the cuts and said scrapping

educational programs for inmates would increase the state's recidivism

rates even further, and end up costing taxpayers more in the end.

Service Employees International Union, which represents the state's prison teachers, is suing the state over the layoffs.

In an interview with SF Weekly

earlier this month, CDCR's Elizabeth Siggins said the state is trying

to focus the remaining education resources on the inmates most likely

to re-offend.This means educational programs for female inmates are

facing

the biggest cuts, since women have a lower risk of recidivism.

Right

now, the wait list for prison educational programs is first-come,

first-serve, Siggins said. After the layoffs, inmates will get priority

on the wait-list depending on how they scored on tests assessing their

risk level and their need, as well as how much time is left before

they're released.

To stretch classroom hours to cover more

inmates, some will only go to class part-time, and will complete the

rest of their work independently in their cells or in the prison

library. Volunteers and inmate peer tutors will also be used to fill

the gaps.

"These changes are going to help us be more effective,"  Siggins said.

Don Cronk, who served more than 25 years in San Quentin for murder, had a different opinion.

"Face

it, most of us go in there because we're dysfunctional. We didn't have

good study habits or work ethic or whatever. It was the example of the

teachers or the instructors, the interaction, that prodded us to strive

and go on and get through it," Cronk told SF Weekly.

Prison

education programs played a crucial role in Cronk's successful attempt

to prove to the parole board that he had  been rehabilitated, a story

chronicled in detail last month on This American Life.

"It's

changed my entire life," he said. "Without it, I doubt I would be

released, and I doubt I would be in the position I'm in."

The teacher layoffs were supposed to go into effect at the end of January,

but they were postponed a month as the state continues to negotiate

with SEIU.

It doesn't help that teachers are being laid off according to seniority, not according to how effective they are, said Jody Lewen, executive director of the Prison University Project at San Quentin, an independently-funded non-profit that will not be affected by the cuts.

"People

who have had direct exposure to the quality of the education inside are

aware that there have been terrible problems with quality control,"

Lewen told SF Weekly.

"California prisons are like one

massive failing urban education system. It's always been public school

in hell. There's no oversight. There's no accountability."  

With the cuts, she said, "It's like a really dilapidated house burning to the ground."

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Lois Beckett

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